parent opinion

"There is no one else": The unique mental load of being a single parent. 

There are two questions that single parents ask themselves.

On a good day, it’s “Am I doing enough?”

On a bad day, it’s “Will I ever be enough?”

I’ve been a sole parent – meaning I’m a single-income, non-custody sharing mum – for a decade. So I know this is a single parent’s biggest fear – that we will never be able to give our kids what two adults in the home may be able to.

Of course, it’s not true. We can, and we do, all the time. But that thought process is part of the hidden and unique mental load that comes with being a single parent.

The mental load – the invisible, emotional labour, of thinking of everything, and then doing everything, entirely on your own.

There’s no one to tag-team with, or to assume your unrelenting responsibilities. No one to complain to your friends about them not pulling their weight – because there is no one else there.

This is our mental load in addition to the housework and groceries and laundry; as well as the millions of things that need to get done – when to buy the birthday present for the party, taking our cherubs to the doctor, going to that early morning meeting, dealing with the aftermath of a mean comment from a kid at school, homework that no one understands, getting the car serviced, and paying the bills on time.

For many single parents, myself included, that was a choice. And I admit that parenting is most certainly easier alone than with someone who isn’t interested in being a partner in it. But that doesn’t mean that the fear isn’t there. The fear is always there, for single parents. It’s just us, and no matter how brave we are, the overwhelming worry can grip our hearts when we least expect it.

Am I making enough money? Will we be okay? What happens if I lose my job? But then, what happens when I’m not there ‘enough’ for the kids? There is only me… so what will happen if I’m no longer here? There is no one else to love this child like I do.

There’s no sugar-coating it, the stakes are high for single parents, and that’s really what makes our mental load so unique – and enormous. The emotional and physical demands of being a single parent means we live in a fragile house of cards; it simply takes a mild cold or one missed step for it all come crashing down.

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Then there’s also the everyday sort of fear – is it okay to order Uber Eats for the third night in a row because I am exhausted? What kind of mother does that?

Who knows, because there’s no one to ask. Which is a freedom, but also, a concern, because the decision is entirely yours. So how do you know if you’re making the right one?

Deciding to miss sports day, prize-giving assemblies, school pick up every single day – these things, they can claw at your conscience, consume you with uncertainty. And there’s no one to share that emotional labour with. No one to debrief with, and no one to pick up any slack. No one who is obliged, as a partner or spouse is, to listen or help.

And so, us single parents, we face our situations bravely. Yes, we have no choice and are doing all we can for our families and – here is the best part – our kids understand all of that, so they’re incredibly resilient. That’s the silver lining.

Single parents are the ultimate role models for our kids; we show them that you don’t have to be partnered to be happy. That it’s possible to live a successful and fulfilling life, with a family who loves you and a career, as an independent adult.

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To be totally honest, a decade down the track, I don’t even think about it much. I don’t stop to think, oh, if only my son’s dad was here to help. Because, like every other single parent I know, we just get on with it.

But that doesn’t mean our mental load should remain unseen, as it mostly is.

The most honest insight into single parenthood I’ve seen in mainstream media is the recent Westpac separation ad. It’s such a beautiful portrayal of single parent families, that I actually sobbed with joy when I saw it. The ad shook me because it showcased the special bond between single parents and their kids. It demonstrated that even though there’s ‘just’ one parent in the home, it is still a home – and still a family. And that’s something that’s nowhere near represented often enough.

Single parent families deserve to be seen as much as other families. Our struggle is just as real. And our status is just as legitimate. Our unique mental load deserves to be acknowledged, and respected, and supported by the community, just as much as any other parent’s.

If you’d like to hear more from Nama Winston, see her stories here, and subscribe to her weekly Mamamia Parents newsletter here.

For more on this topic:

‘I’m not nagging, I’m delegating.’ Women are absolutely fed up with the mental load.

Why our obsession with Marie Kondo is the perfect example of the mental load women carry everyday.

‘If this was my job, I’d quit.’: Mum’s candid admission about parenting goes viral.

Why “We’re having a baby” won’t sound the same again after Fifi Box’s pregnancy announcement.

“Every Friday night I go to Fight Club with my 11-year-old son.”

“Engage with your kids or don’t come.” The real problem with this restaurant owner’s message to parents.

What do you think of the single parent mental load? Tell us in the comments below.

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